THE CHALET SCHOOL REVISITED

This is a proposal to make a film about the author Elinor M. Brent-Dyer (1894-1969), her "Chalet School" series for girls and its adult fans today.

Background

1994 is the centenary of the birth of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, author of the "Chalet School" series of books for girls. The series, which began in 1925 with the publication of The School at the Chalet and ended six months after Brent-Dyer's death in 1970 with the publication of Prefects of the Chalet School, numbers 59 books in all and is the longest girls' school story series ever written. It has sold and continues to sell throughout the English-speaking world, as well as in translation.

Girls' school stories have been the most popular genre for girls throughout the twentieth century, with other popular authors including Angela Brazil, Elsie Oxenham and Dorita Fairlie Bruce. However, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer is unique in remaining enormously popular with girls in their early teens today, with current sales of the series ranging from 150,000 to 200,000 a year in Armada paperback.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that many adult women also enjoy the books - some for reasons of nostalgia, others reading them for the first time in adulthood and becoming instant fans. These women have formed their own national and international networks, based around book fairs and collectors' clubs, and since the late 1980s have launched two specialist fanzines, The Friends of the Chalet School (also published in Australia) and The Chaletian.

These networks mirror the Chalet Club launched by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer in 1959, which had an international membership of nearly 4,000 by 1963 and which lasted until after Brent-Dyer's death. Members received a badge and membership card, and two annual newsletters. However, while Brent-Dyer's club catered for girl readers, today's networks are exclusively for adult women.

These women fans are refusing to allow the centenary of Brent-Dyer's birth go unmarked, and have set up an Elinor M. Brent-Dyer Centenary Committee to plan events to commemorate her life and achievements. As of March 1993 these include:

* A trip to the Achensee in Austria to visit the fictional site of the original Chalet School (the school was relocated to Guernsey, then Herefordshire, Wales and finally Switzerland during the course of the series) and to unveil a commemorative plaque. This follows a similar trip in June 1992, where seven women readers of The Chaletian followed the Chalet School girls' route to school and visited a number of places mentioned in the books, duplicating the fictional schoolgirls' expeditions where possible.

* A residential weekend in Brent-Dyer's home town of Hereford on 15-17 April 1994. On the Friday night there will be the opening of an exhibition about Brent-Dyer in Hereford City Museum; on Saturday there will be a coach tour taking in Brent-Dyer's homes together with the fictional sites of events in the Chalet School series, followed by a centenary dinner with Helen McClelland, Brent-Dyer's biographer, as the guest speaker; and on Sunday there will be a special service at the Church where Brent-Dyer worshiped. Less formal activities include plans for a "Sheets and Pillowcases" party, an entertainment enjoyed by the fictional Chalet School girls.

* A trip to Guernsey to visit the fictional site of the Chalet School there.

* The unveiling of a commemorative plaque in South Shields, Brent-Dyer's birthplace.

* An exhibition in Edinburgh.

* The production of commemorative calendars, Christmas cards and posters.

To coincide with the interest generated by these events, Ju Gosling and Rosemary Auchmuty (see below) are editing a book and organising a one-day conference about the Chalet School phenomenon, aimed equally at Women's Studies and Cultural Studies students and academics and at fans. The working titles of both are also The Chalet School Revisited, and both the publication of the book and the date of the conference could be coordinated to ensure maximum publicity for the film.

Approach

As is so often the case with popular culture, the readers of the Chalet School series are equally if not more interesting than the books themselves. By following the women as they organise and participate in the centenary events, it will be possible to introduce (or, which is more likely, to re-introduce) viewers to Elinor M. Brent-Dyer and her Chalet School series, at the same time as finding out more about her fans.

What makes adult women dedicate a great deal of time and money to collecting original editions of the books, paying up to £150 and more for rare volumes? Why are the stories and the characters so important to them? What part do the books play in their lives? Why have they launched the fan networks and what do they get out of meeting with other fans? These questions and more will be answered by talking to these women, both individually and in groups, as they organise and participate in the centenary events.

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's own life will be covered by an interview with her biographer, Helen McClelland, author of Behind the Chalet School (New Horizon, 1981) and Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's Chalet School (Armada, 1989). She has access to a collection of still photographs of Brent-Dyer at various points in her life which can be intercut with footage of the interview.

Helen McClelland can also cover the basic outline of the series, with individual characters introduced by the women fans who can talk about them in the context of why they find them so appealing. Brief excerpts from the books themselves can be read by modern schoolgirls, illustrated with some of the original book illustrations and dust cover designs.

Rosemary Auchmuty, lecturer in Women's Studies at the University of Westminster and author of A World of Girls (The Women's Press, 1992) can put the books into an academic context, with her theories of why the books are so popular.

Audience

The majority of women brought up in Great Britain during the twentieth century have read girls' school stories, and most of these have read one or more of the Chalet School series. Surveys have shown that the appeal of girls' school stories cuts across class and even racial boundaries to strike a universal note with young girls, and as the film shows this appeal often lasts into adult life.

This means that the film should appeal to a wide range of women viewers, so long as their feelings for the books are treated seriously. While not treating the books as great works of literature - which clearly they are not - the film will avoid the parodic approach of Authur Marshall and the St Trinian's series and will be careful not to send these women up.

The film should also appeal to a schoolgirl audience, many of whom will either be reading or will have recently read the books, although it will be aimed at an adult rather than a teenage audience. It should also attract a smaller male audience, as children's book collecting in general is equally popular among men and there are known to be some male fans of the Chalet School series. If any men are found to be involved in the centenary celebrations, they will be interviewed to maximise the possible male audience for the film.

Ju Gosling

Ju Gosling received a Master of Arts by Independent Study in the Field of Cultural Studies in March 1992 for her thesis A World of Girls - Schoolgirl Fiction: Genre, Femininity and the Chalet School. She is currently researching for her PhD in the Department of Communication & Image Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury, exploring the reasons for the popularity of the genre of girls' school stories. Her final thesis will be produced as a hypertext.

An experienced journalist, researcher and press officer, Juliet has been freelance since January 1988. Her television work includes acting as researcher on Cutting Edge: No Home for Barry (Adventure Pictures), broadcast on Channel 4 in April 1990, and as chief researcher on Breadline Britain in the 1990s (Domino Films), a six-part series for LWT broadcast on ITV in Spring 1991 and repeated on LWT that summer. She has full membership of BECTU.
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